Category Archives: 1800s

The Mosquito Fleet consisted of a small fleet of small fishing boats operated by members of the African-American community in and around Charleston. While the fleet mainly fished for commercial and subsistence purposes it also provided a ferry service across the Ashley and Cooper Rivers between the sea islands and the City of Charleston.

During its heyday the small boats with their brightly colored sails were so numerous they were said to look like a swarm of mosquito skimming over the water. In addition to commercial fishing the fleet also put on an annual race on the 4th of July. In the last known race boats like Ocean Queen, Matchme, Too Sweet My Love, and P.M. Catchem competed for the top prize. By the 1960s the Mosquito Fleet was all but gone due in part to hurricanes and higher paying jobs at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Learn more about history and economics of our watershed.

In the 1870s deposits of phosphate were discovered Charleston’s river beds and underground. Economically pressed planters sold or rented land to the growing number of mining and fertilizer production companies. Riverbank sites were more popular than inland sites because of the ease of excavation and transport.

By the end of the 1800s more than two dozen companies, most located along the Ashley River, produced one-half of the world’s phosphates. The mining industry began to decline after the earthquake of 1886 damaged and new phosphate sources were located outside South Carolina. The mining industry was gone by 1938.

Although the mines and fertilizer plants along the Ashley River are gone the pollutants they generated are still present. Today, at some sites, old ditches can carry acidic water, lead, and arsenic into the Ashley River. Some former phosphate fertilizer plant sites along the Ashley River have been recognized by the US EPA as “Superfund” sites. Clean up and monitoring activities continue to this day. Learn more about human impacts and legacy pollutants in our watershed.

The present location of the City of Charleston was chosen because it was easy to defend and had access to the deep water of the Cooper River.  By the mid-1700s, Charleston was a busy trade center exporting indigo, rice, and cotton and one of the largest ports in the American colonies.  By the Civil War Charleston was the wealthiest city in the South and its commercial and cultural center.

In the years following the Civil War, Charleston’s economy languished but was buoyed by the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Charleston Naval Shipyard, naval station, and distribution center.   Today, Joint Base Charleston is the Charleston area’s largest employer.  The modern Port of Charleston, owned by the South Carolina Ports Authority, handles over 60 million tons of cargo annually including textiles, clothing, forest products, chemicals, machinery, vehicles, boats and aircraft, food, furniture and hardware. Learn more about the economics of the Charleston Harbor watershed.

During much of the City of Charleston’s early history, Charlestonians used privy vaults for to collect and dispose of human fecal waste.  By the late 1800s, Charleston had approximately 10,000 privy vaults, of which only 10% were emptied in a given year. Drinking water cisterns were often located close to privy vaults, posing a serious health risk. Diseases like cholera were common problems.

In the late 1800s scientific advances made it clear that bacteria from fecal waste caused diseases like cholera.  As a result, Charleston began constructing a sewage collection and disposal system.  Work progressed in fits and starts and was finally completed in the 1940s.  The system discharged untreated sewage from several outfall along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.  By the late 1960s water quality had drastically declined making many local waterways unfit from swimming and shellfishing.  In the early 1970s the federal Clean Water Act required all sewage be treated before discharge.  The city’s Plum Island Treatment Plant was completed in 1971 and to this day discharges treated wastewater to the Ashley River. Learn more about the history of the Charleston Harbor watershed.